At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of New Yorkers got their daily drinking water from the countless natural springs and wells that dotted the city’s dirt roads, parks, farms, and shanty towns. Epidemics spread by these untreated water sources prompted the city to bring water from the nearby Croton River to reservoirs in Manhattan in the 1840s. But much of the city’s rapidly growing population — especially the poor — was left out of service, while others simply preferred drinking from their local springs and wells over piped water.
As municipal aqueducts, transit tunnels, and paved roads began to extinguish these humble water sources, New Yorker and amateur historian James Reuel Smith set out to record their locations, patrons, and flows. Traveling on his bicycle and equipped with his camera, notebook, and tireless curiosity, Smith documented over 160 springs and wells in Manhattan, the Bronx, and the surrounding areas between 1897 and 1903. After Smith’s death, the project was published in a 1938 book by the New-York Historical Society.
Decades later, photographer Stanley Greenberg discovered Smith’s obsessive work with New York’s bygone water sources. “I came across his book at the library while doing some other New York research,” Greenberg wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic. “My first response was that this had to have been done by a crazy person. [But] five minutes later, I knew I was going to map out all of his sites and photograph what was there now.”
And so, from 2016 to 2020, Greenberg retraced Smith’s trajectory with his own camera and bicycle. Springs and Wells, Manhattan and the Bronx (Fw:Books, 2021) pairs Smith’s original black-and-white photos and descriptive texts about each site with Greenberg’s modern-day snapshots. The expansive book is a fascinating testament to urban and climatic change, and a tireless tribute to what was once an essential but unassured part of daily life: the collection and consumption of clean water.
In most cases, a century of construction and development has left Smith’s original locations unrecognizable. At the corner of Whitlock Avenue and East 136th Street, what was once a small pond surrounded by grazing cows is now — in Greenberg’s photo — a busy intersection edged by an overpass, the cows replaced with a Mister Softee truck and mural. Another of Smith’s photos, taken west of Northern Avenue near West 183rd Street, features a simple wooden well with a bucket in a shady meadow. Today, the same site is a manicured pathway between two multi-story brick apartment buildings. Even in pictures where traces of the original water source remain — as with the fountain at the 86th Street Transverse in Central Park — there are telling differences: the current site is dry, and lacks the communal drinking ladles that hung beside its once-steady stream of water.
In addition to tracking these changes, Greenberg’s book preserves Smith’s poetic but precise, meticulously observed notes about the springs and wells. These often incorporate the comments of local residents, many of them immigrants from Europe, capturing a sense of the city’s increasing diversity. Smith samples the water himself whenever possible, reporting about its flavor, temperature, and texture. And, because drawing and fetching water was frequently a child’s job, smiling, sheepish kids feature in a number of Smith’s photographs.
Springs and Wells, Manhattan and the Bronx is a reminder of the many things that change can make us forget. Greenberg hopes that the book will “make people think more about what’s underneath them,” and suggests that letting these water sources flow freely again could help some of the city’s stormwater management woes. Beyond that, the book’s impact lies, as Smith says, in “something pleasurable which will shortly cease to exist,” preserving “a link which connects the thoughts with the past.”
Springs and Wells, Manhattan and the Bronx by Stanley Greenberg is published by FW:Books.